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OCAD University co-leads research study to address urban planning challenges

As Ontario faces complex urban planning challenges over the next decade due to a briskly growing population, OCAD University is among the experts it will be able to consult for guidance.

Four researchers affiliated with the art, design and media education institution are among the key contributors to a comprehensive new research endeavour focused on cultivating better mobility, affordable housing and liveable communities.

iCity 2.0: Urban Data Science for Future Mobility is a multidisciplinary, multi-stakeholder, data science-based project that aims to improve accessibility, in support of heightened economic productivity, quality of life and environmental sustainability in Ontario, by advancing the design of urban transportation systems and “complete communities.”

Led by the University of Toronto, this four-year initiative will help the province prepare for population growth of 30% by 2041, with 65% of this increase occurring in the economic engine of the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area (GTHA).

“We need to better understanding the complex relationships between neighbourhoods, transportation and the built environment in order to ensure we have communities that are equitable and healthy,” says co-principal investigator Dr. Sara Diamond, OCAD U’s President Emerita.

Challenges facing cities today

iCity 2.0 will focus on three interrelated challenges facing cities today:

  • Managing the risks and reaping the benefits of emerging mobility services and trends such as ride hailing, ride sharing, on-demand transit, e-bikes and autonomous vehicles;
  • Developing new analysis tools and design concepts to plan, build, and evaluate complete communities in both retrofitted existing neighbourhoods and new developments; and
  • Reallocating capacity on surface transportation networks to move more people safely, efficiently, and reliably on existing roads.

Project supported by the Ontario Research Fund – Research Excellence

iCity 2.0 is supported by the Ontario Research Fund – Research Excellence (ORF-RE) program, which funds projects with strategic value to the province.

It’s expected that the $3.139 million in ORF-RE funding will be matched by the project’s institutional, industry and municipal partners, which include the City of Toronto, York Region, the Toronto Transit Commission, property developers Daniels Corporation and Diamond Corporation, and software companies specializing in generative design and geographic information systems such as ESRI Canada and Autodesk.

The project has also received endorsements from Metrolinx, Ontario’s ministries of infrastructure and transportation, and the Regional Municipality of Peel Public Health and Transportation.

Dr. Diamond will lead research focused on designing complete communities – ones that follow urban planning principles, and also respond to community members demographics and their needs – access to employment, schools, hospitals and other amenities. Dr. Diamond and the OCAD U team will provide visualization research across all three themes.

She will be joined by three OCAD U colleagues: Maya Mahgoub-Desai, Chair of the Environmental Design Program and Jeremy Bowes professor in Environmental Design and Michelle Wyndham-West, Chair of the Design for Health program at OCAD U.

Desai and Wyndham-Bowes bring specialized knowledge in design for health while Bowes and Desai bring urban planning and housing research to the project. They will be doing much of their work through OCAD U’s Visual Analytics Lab, which specializes in turning complex data sets into instructive visualizations. Their computer modelling work will also be influenced by demographic changes, economic trends, disruptive technologies, and services, and now, COVID-19.

The lab is a partner of the new urban data science research hub being established for the project together with the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute, which is led by principal investigator Dr. Eric J. Miller, who is also the Institute’s director and a professor in the Department of Civil and Mineral Engineering.

Participating academic researchers from the two institutions will bring expertise in areas such as transportation engineering, computer science, geographic information science, urban planning, economics, sociology, architecture, and urban studies.

Building on progress

iCity 2.0 expands on the highly successful 2015 – 2020 ORF project iCity 1.0: Urban Informatics for Sustainable Metropolitan growth. That five-year project produced dozens of research papers that advanced knowledge, methods and tools for enhancing urban transportation systems.

It gave rise to an ontology and computational platform for studying urban systems, and enhanced our understanding and computer modeling of streets, parking issues and public transit. It also introduced sophisticated visualization methods for transportation-land use analysis.

A prominent outcome of iCity 1.0 pertained to how we evaluate and achieve “complete streets”— ones designed for people of all ages, abilities and income levels, appropriate for land use, and for all modes of travel.

Dr. Diamond and Bowes of OCAD U drew on user-centered design principles and practices to help create a prototype of an interactive web-based dashboard visualization tool urban planners can use to design streets more effectively.

As part of these efforts, the two conducted qualitative research to evaluate the effectiveness of the King Street pilot project, which the City of Toronto introduced in 2017 to alleviate traffic congestion on this busy transit route by prioritizing access for streetcars and pedestrians. Through on-street surveys, focus groups and a web-based questionnaire, and then using visualization tools to assess the responses, they were able to gather important insights on the success of the pilot program.

“The idea with the King Street Pilot was to decide which factors were the most important in a street – the number of traffic lanes, bike lanes, sidewalk cafes, the heights of buildings, their shadows, and public art and design features,” says Bowes, an interior and architectural designer, and systems analyst who also teaches in OCAD U’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation graduate program. “Our dashboard allows urban designers to look at an existing street, put in different criteria and assess its completeness, and then change the criteria to produce a new version.”

Opportunities for OCAD U students

As in round one, iCity 2.0 will create opportunities for OCAD U undergraduate and graduate students as well as post-doctoral fellows to participate in collaborative research.

As well, iCity 2.0 will continue working with youth outreach partner Maximum City, an educational social enterprise that will engage local and international middle and high school students in urban planning learning activities through its summer and March Break programs.

It’s expected that the research will begin in earnest by September 2021.